The Happiness Trap

Have you ever met someone who was going through a terrible challenge and yet they always seemed to be positive and upbeat? Did you ever wish you could be like them…that you could find the secret to happiness in the face of such trials? I’ve wished that. And I have fallen face first in the happiness trap over and over again.

It turns out that there’s a problem with focusing on happiness as a life goal. Focusing on being happy actually makes you unhappy.


You read correctly. If you make happiness the primary goal of your life, you are less likely to be happy…and it may actually contribute to mental illness.

Ask just about anyone what they want in life and “to be happy” will likely be the top answer. Every year millions of people make happiness their New Year’s resolution and yet the numbers of people taking medications for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety continue to skyrocket, This is not just in the U.S. but around the world.

So, what’s up?

Since there are so many passengers on this train to Sadsville, scientists are turning up the emphasis on happiness studies. What they are finding is that happiness is a bit of a paradox.

In one study, people who made happiness their primary focus were 35% less satisfied with their life, had 50% less positive emotions and 75% more symptoms of depression than people who focused on other priorities in their life. Not only that, but people who put such a supreme value on being happy reported 15% less psychological well-being. June Gruber, an assistant professor who studies happiness in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, found that “the more we specifically prioritize being happy as the goal in and of itself, we may be inadvertently setting ourselves up for feeling unhappy and at greater risk for mental health difficulties.”

Americans, in particular, are more likely to value being happy as the pinnacle of a life well lived. After all, it’s in our Declaration of Independence; this pursuit of happiness that is considered an “inalienable right”. But, according to Iris Mauss, a professor at UC Berkeley who did a groundbreaking study on happiness, “…valuing happiness could be self-defeating because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.” In test after test, those who valued happiness more, reported lower levels of happiness in their life and viewed potentially happy moments with disappointment. This held true even when the participants were under conditions of low life stress. Also, just reading articles about how happiness is a key ingredient to a person’s well-being reduced participant’s level of enjoyment of positive activities that followed.

OK…so how about some healthy happy, please!

Human kind has been trying to find the formula for happiness about as long as there have been humans. No surefire method for finding happiness has popped up, but you could take a stab at trying Dennis Prager’s (of Prager University) Happiness Equation. According to his research and observations, your average person’s level of unhappiness is equal to the image of how they think their life should be minus the reality of their life. (U=I-R) The greater the difference we see between who we think we should be or how we think our life should have played out and the reality of who we are and the life we are living, the greater our unhappiness will be. Rather, we should throw away all of those media influenced ideas of what the good life is and focus on the good things we have.

Taking stock of the good things in our lives is always a good idea, but I think we should also look at reevaluating happiness. I mean, I often think that I should be happy better than half of the time. It’s likely a lot of people feel this way. I can’t say that I have a happy life if I am happy less than half of my life, right?

Actually, no.

We have this huge spectrum of emotions that we cast aside when we dig around trying to find this jewel we call happiness. There’s the tough stuff like rage and grief, loneliness and jealousy, shame and guilt, but when we focus on happiness we also ignore the other good stuff. We toss aside determination and satisfaction, hopefulness and excitement, peacefulness and contentment. Ironically, one of the keys to having a life that we consider a happy one is to find an emotional balance.

Yeah, I looked at that and gave a snort of disbelief. Emotional balance seems far beyond the reach of those of us who are challenged with mental illness. But I discovered that the road to emotional balance is built on accepting whatever current emotional state we are in. If we are sad, own it. When we are anxious, acknowledge it. If we are angry, give that sucker a hug. Emotions make an appearance and then they move on. Some stay longer than others, but they always move on and if we acknowledge that, we have a better chance of finding our emotional balance. So…work in progress.

A Take Away…

What it really boils down to is that we need to avoid focusing on being happy and falling into the happiness trap. There are so many other things we could be putting that energy into. Strive to be kind to ourselves and others. Try putting our efforts into being a good friend, a good mom or dad, a good neighbor…a good person standing on this planet. Focus a bit on making this world a better place. And acknowledge that we are actually pretty good at handling the challenges life hurls at us because, hey, we are still here…and doesn’t that make you happy?



“The Problem with Happiness” – Psychology Today – Author: Dr. Todd B. Kashdan: clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University.

Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness” – Research study – Iris B. Mauss: associate professor UC Berkeley

“For a happier 2019, stop focusing on happiness, CU professor says” – Denver Post (January 8, 2019) – Author: Madeline St. Amour

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While the articles are written to inform, entertain and support those who visit the site, the Anxious Artist is not a licensed medical professional and the information on these pages is not intended to replace regular medical care. Research and testimonials may show promising results with alternative treatments for mental illness, but these should always be discussed with a qualified medical practitioner before being implemented.

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